Presuming to Edit Neil Gaiman

Let me get this out in the open: I like Neil Gaiman. I like his writing, I like his style, and I like the apparent ease with which he not only navigates the alabaster halls of writerly fame, but is polite and supportive in his interactions with his fans. He bestrides the narrow world like a colossus; I am, at best, a zed, an unnecessary letter. These are neither fanboi gush nor false modesty, but simple facts.

All of which makes this blog post a bit troublesome for me to write.

When I started posting stories on my website, one of the first things that was pointed out to me was a tic in my writing that I wasn’t even aware of. Having written, re-read and edited the stories, I posted them with this linguistic tic in place. It took someone else to point it out to me. Ever since then, I’ve been sensitive to it, like a man stung by a jellyfish will develop a hypersensitivity to it. I look for it in my own writing and, compulsively, in just about every piece of fiction I read.

When I see it in my own writing, I revise it. When I edit other people’s writing, I flag it. When I beta read for friends, I point to it.

I saw it here on the Today’s Author website and was all set to write a blog post discussing why writers should always be on the lookout for this, why you should check your own work to make sure this doesn’t crop up. Then, to my chagrin, I saw Neil Gaiman do it and it gave me pause. Here’s a guy who CLEARLY knows how to write, someone who has autographed more books than I’ll probably ever sell… but there it is. He did that thing I was all set to tell people not to do. A cat can look at a king, but who am I to edit Neil Gaiman?

If he put it there, it had to be deliberate. Since he knows what he’s doing (to put it mildly), that deliberation is worth rethinking my own reaction to it.Grumpy cat is not amused by textual repetition.

I’m talking about opening repetition, using the same words in the beginning of a paragraph.

Don’t get me wrong – sometimes repetition is used deliberately, as I did in the sentence above (“When I see…”, “When I edit…”, “When I beta read…”). It establishes a rhythm for the words, an underlying chord progression that supports the changes in the sentences. That kind of intentional repetition is poetic and can be quite powerful. Neil Gaiman used it to good effect in the May tale in his Calender of Tales project.

However, in Kim Ellington’s piece, The Thrill of Chills, is a different kind of repetition. (I hope Kim doesn’t mind my drawing on her work for this illustration. After all, she can now safely say that she writes the way Neil Gaiman does, at least in this one way, which is pretty good company to keep.) A consecutive series of Kim’s paragraphs open with:

I grew…
I loved…
I didn’t know…
I prefer…

This is the kind of repetition that, had I written the blog post I set out to write, I would have suggested warranted a second look in order to vary the sentence structures. Maybe change the opening of the second paragraph to “Oh, how I loved…” or “What called to me…” or some other construction that would have the same meaning, but would avoid the repetition.

But then I read this set of openings in a set of successive paragraphs in the March tale of Neil Gaiman’s Calender of Tales:

She was dressed…
She fell…
She left…

So much for my hypersensitivity! I hit that sequence and fell out of the story as my internal editor was challenged by this repetition. What does that say about this aspect of writing? Or about me as a reader/editor? I tend to avoid even one successive repetition, lest the reader stumble on the opening of the second paragraph and be pulled out. Am I wrong? Is even three repetitions OK, but four too many? I once beta read a book for a friend that had (as I recall) twelve of the first sixteen paragraphs start with:

Bob ran…
Bob opened…
Bob took…
Bob gave…
Bob looked…
Bob angled…
Bob closed…
Bob walked…
Bob climbed…

This was too much and I said so. As I had been unaware when it was first pointed out to me, so was my friend unaware that it had taken such strong root in that book.

So, now that I’ve held up Kim’s and Neil Gaiman’s writing as exemplars of repetition, what can I do now but invite them to comment? (For the record, I contacted them both with a preview link before submitting this post to the Today’s Author overlords.) Guys, was this intentional? Was it part of an impulse that made the words sound the way you wanted them to? Do you look for this kind of thing when you self-edit, as I do? Did you intend to leave this here or did it slip through the cracks?

Also (looking for anyone’s input here), am I crazy for paying attention to this? Am I overthinking things again?

36 thoughts on “Presuming to Edit Neil Gaiman

  1. This is a very interesting post. I am always bothered by repetition, particularly at the begging of a paragraph. I read an article yesterday that three of five paragraphs started with ” When they”. Needless to say, I posted a comment asking the author if they realized that they had repeated themselves.
    Many, many times as I am absolutely sure that you are aware people do not take the time to reread and self-edit. What really stuns me is that I have seen this on sites where the are trying to get hired as a writer or in sample pieces.
    I am not an editor but I do make a living writing and I am very well-read. When i see things like that it jars me out of the written piece and many times I find that I lose interest.
    Now I have got that out of my system I can face the rest of the day…lol. I hope you have an exceptional one and keep up the good work and….. Make Good Art- Niel Gaiman.

    • “When i see things like that it jars me out of the written piece…”

      This is my main problem with it, too. When it’s done in support of artistic intent, it’s part of the voice of the piece. However, when it reads like something that slipped through the cracks, it’s a stumbling block.

      I was completely unaware that I was doing it, but now I’m more intentional about it.

  2. Tony, I’m going to turn the question around a bit and ask: why is it a bad thing to have this kind of repetition? Why is it important to vary the opening sentence structure all the time? As I read this article I kept thinking about all the times I’ve read about how to write dialogue — that you should just say “he said” or “she said” instead of mixing it up with things like “he quipped” or “she intoned” or whatever.

    I had a similar thing pointed out to me, though, and a similar response. I overuse the word “that”. “I think that I should go to the store.” “It was as if I could see that that thing was going to turn ugly real fast.” Etc. Now I look for it in my writng and I see it everywhere… to the point where I over-edit it out.

    Ultimately, I think there are no “rights” or “wrongs” in writing. There are preferences and there are styles. What works for one author — or even one piece by an author — may not work for another author or for another piece. I, personally, have no problem with repetition sometimes, but other times it draws me out of the reading. It’s a fine line, I suppose, and one I don’t feel I can properly define because it varies from piece to piece.

    • It’s a fine line, I suppose, and one I don’t feel I can properly define because it varies from piece to piece.

      And it certainly varies from writer to writer. For this or any rule, the important thing isn’t that you broke it, but why you broke it. Was it because you did it deliberately? Or because you didn’t know any better?

      If it’s what you intended to do, then it’s part of your art, an intentional part of the effort to evoke a specific reaction in the reader. Repetition can do this kind of thing very effectively. However, I’d question the value of something that breaks the spell and makes the reader step out and look at how you’re writing instead of what you’re writing… unless, of course, such a break in the fourth wall is your intent.

      Like the overuse of “that” or the sentence opener “So, …” or a character who is constantly grimacing, these are the little blind spots that we need to be aware of.

  3. I presume that if anyone has top-notch editors who pore over every word, it’s Neil Gaiman. So it was probably deliberate. Even the best try things that don’t work (which is part of why they’re the best, perhaps).

    When I read Grapes of Wrath, I was surprised at the profanity and even a “he didn’t say it but you know that’s what they were doing” sex scene, not to mention the explicit cruelty with how the bosses treated the migrants. Pretty strong stuff for the late 30s… then I thought, you know, John Steinbeck. The book certainly isn’t beyond the pale for our age, and maybe that’s why it has held up so well. So, as usual, the Big Names do as they please while the rest of us schlubs have to mind our Ps, Qs, and repetitive phrases.

    My editor has caught me on repetition as well, but I have used it to good effect in FridayFlash on occasion. “It’s in the way that you use it,” and now you have that song stuck in your head. (runs away laughing)

    • I guess I should have noted that by “Neil Gaiman”, I meant “Neil Gaiman and his team of editors”. The very fact that he did it is what gave me pause and made me rethink my das ist verboten position. Is it OK to do this occasionally? Or is this just one that slipped through? Should I assume absolute intentionality or note an errant brush stroke on the canvas?

      These Calender of Tales stories were written quickly from the prompts he got. I think he did all twelve over the course of a weekend. Wonderful work, but I know that moving fast necessarily means fewer minutes spent on each piece. Even when you have editors standing by, ye canna break the laws of physics.

      Learning from the best sometimes means questioning what they’ve done.

  4. I think I would stand with you on the examples you gave – over against Neil Gaiman (God forbid!). Repetition can be a poetic device used to establish rhythm, but repetition of a single word (such as a pronoun or name) would be like banging on a washboard, not strumming a guitar.

    • Whenever something seems dissonant, my instinct is to wonder if the person intended that. Some people hit so many wrong notes, it’s clear they are still learning how to play. When a master does it, it prompts the question.

  5. Tony, a thoughtful piece. As novice writers we’re making and breaking habits about our writing. We are scrutinizing each word because we have to. And we all tend to take something overboard. I remember as a copy writer my boss wanted me to change something about a way I presented an article of clothing. In general, she didn’t like a particular phrasing but didn’t want to say so because then it became a rule and “then you all just follow it out the window.” Or, we stuck to the rule even when ignoring the rule would make the writing stronger. I think we all have quirks in our writing that we take as rules. Our next step in developing our style is learning when to ignore those personal rules.

    About Gaiman and detailed editing: I read across genres, but don’t follow authors much except fantasy authors. I believe there is some of what I see in fantasy publishing that carries over to other genres. Once an author is established, editors DON’T scrutinize the books at the same level.

    • I had to stop reading Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy and David Weber for precisely that reason. The books got so bloated and clumsy, as though they were writing parodies of themselves.

      I’ve never gotten that sense with Gaiman, maybe because he doesn’t tend to write series of novels featuring the same characters. Anansi Boys was a quasi-sequel to American Gods, but it wasn’t like he brought the same cast of characters together over and over and over. Writing new plots, new settings, new visions is certainly more work (since you have to do all that pesky world-building afresh for each book) but it clearly serves him well.

      In any case, the detailed editing I’m talking about with respect to repetition is an open question: was this deliberate or a slight hiccup?

  6. Was this deliberate or a slight hiccup?

    Both. The concept I had was of marching toward doom, so the repetition was deliberate. However, after reading Tony’s preview, I looked back again at my post and decided that he was onto something with his question, “Is three okay, but four too much?” I think so. With his comments in mind, I, too, felt thrown off by the last repetition. I still like the first three, though.

  7. I dodged a bullet there, Rob. Whew!

  8. I struggle with this in my own first drafts, I think it’s one of these things that does stand out as really obvious when reading out-loud, which is why I have started reading my stuff to myself. Doesn’t always catch it, but often.

  9. It’s funny you wrote about this, because I catch myself trying to avoid doing that all the time. I change it up when I catch it, because I don’t want to be repetitive. I think stylistically it works sometimes, but overall I don’t like it. I just don’t know what makes one okay and the other not!

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you (3 is okay) for this insightful post. I’m saving it in my “Tips for Writers” file. I’m currently on the final edit of my first MS and will be eagle-eyed as I go through it again today 🙂

    • Especially for “debut” writers, I think it’s better to be more aware of the rules and, perhaps, more conservative in which ones you break. Later, when voice (and market position) are stronger, branching out is easier.

  11. So, I’m coming to the discussion a little late–the disadvantage of having WordPress blocked at work.

    Rob asked why we consider this repetition a bad thing. I think the answer strays into the area of needing to treat different levels of writers differently. I know very early in my writing life, and I’m talking about when I was first learning to write coherent paragraphs and short essays/stories, I had a tendency to use the same sentence structure over and over. I think then we should be told to branch out. The problem is that as we become more advanced writers we’re never taught that we can discard these rules–that NOW we can be trusted to read something for the overall effect and not for arbitrary rules.

    The “he said” exception you were talking about is a good example. As we learn to read we find all these wonderful words and start using them as dialogue tags and it becomes a bit silly. After a while we settle down and realize that “he said” works just fine.

    In this case I think the “don’t repeat” rule can get lax when we get more mature, and learn to use it correctly. In Kim’s post, the repetition gave a strong rhythm to the piece, and I became aware of the rhythm as I read it.

    As for The-Great-and-powerful-Gaiman, I have noticed through much of his work a tendency to break the rules in a way that “simplifies” the writing to a point where it sounds a bit like the way fairy tales are told. To me this adds a power to his stories, because they start to feel like they have been around for a while, and this is one of the ways they take on that magical realism quality that he’s so good at. I don’t think he could get this texture to his writing if wrote more correctly.

    If we do it through laziness, or through mistake, I agree that these rules can be a bad thing and can lull the reader into boredom. But used correctly, they can add a sense of discomfort, rhythm, magic or emphasis that is more difficult with correct style.

    • There’s a koan that says:

      Before seeking enlightenment, the mountain is just a mountain.
      While seeking enlightenment, the mountain is not just a mountain.
      After attaining enlightenment, the mountain is just a mountain.

      Beginning writers break rules haphazardly, without knowing what kind of effect they achieve by doing so. Journeyman writers adhere to rules, using them to guide the effect of their writing. Master writers break rules deliberately, using the breaks to achieve effects with precision and deft skill.

      Guess where I am? And where I’m trying to go? 😎

  12. My thoughts on writing rules is that they are in place for a great reason: if they are broken, it usually results in inferior, amateurish writing. But, as the ol’ adage goes, rules are meant to be broken. If done correctly, and for the right reason, anything can work, including this opening repetition you are talking about. My rule of thumb as to whether a rule has been broken successfully or not is this: did it jar you out of the story? If so, the rule shouldn’t have been broken. If not, and you catch it but continue on enjoying, or you only learn of it later on a reread or being told about it, then said author handled it correctly. Basically, I agree with you, Tony; unless you know you’re going to pull off the opening repetition for the betterment of your story, don’t do it. Sure, try it in the first draft, but if it doesn’t add any magic, any rhythm, then pull it out of there while editing.

    I don’t know the story you’re talking about with Gaiman, so I can’t comment on him in particular, but I’d hold it to the same rule above: did it jar you out of the story? With a big author such as him, I’m sure fans will argue both sides of that.

  13. Repetition can be clumsy writing. This may sound silly, but I think if you’re repeating at the beginning of fairly long paragraphs, it’s probably sloppiness. Or if it’s EVERY paragraph, or most. But I could see, with shorter paragraphs, achieving a kind of prose poetry by, as you put it, “[creating] a rhythm for the words, an underlying chord progression that supports the changes in the sentences.” Without seeing Mr. Gaiman’s writing in toto, I can’t begin to imagine whether or not he intended it that way, but perhaps the fact that it bothered you enough to mention it is your answer. 🙂

    • Making the repetition sound rhythmic or poetic is tricky. The galloping tone relies as much on the first several words in the sentences as on the subject -verb pairing. Part of the problem is that the words might strike a wonderful rhythm when read aloud, but be completely jarring if read as pure text. Part of the craft, which is why I approach repetition with caution.

  14. Yes, this kind of repetitiveness bothers me. I was always taught to alter sentence structure. But having not read the book in question, I don’t know whether that repetition was deliberate or not. Wonder if there is truly a reason for it?

    • I don’t know whether that repetition was deliberate or not.

      If it was, then I might need to rethink my position on repetition, and how it can and should be used. I have no intention of restructuring my writing to make it sound like Neil Gaiman. I want it to sound like Tony Noland. However, if someone successful does something, it’s worth some thought to see what can be learned from that.

      And if it wasn’t? Then I’m just overanalyzing things again. Also, I’ll know that even the greats can miss a note here and there. That brings a sort of comfort.

  15. Will this peeve prevent you from reading his work in future?

  16. I’m nervous to refer to anything this macro-level as a “rule”. I’m also wary of the notion that certain constructions are allowed of the exalted published, while the rest of us grunts have to stick with the basics until we earn or privileges.

    Put it this way: if someone gives feedback to the effect of “this isn’t working for me”, that’s one thing. But to attempt to codify it as yet another “rule” is something else again. It’s like Churchill’s famous response to the “never end a sentence with a preposition” dictum: “that is a rule up with which I will not put”.

    • I do believe that established authors get more latitude than rookies. A long track record of great work is like a reserve of goodwill and trust in that author’s abilities. If they break a rule, there must be a solid artistic underpinning. In contrast, why should anyone have faith in the writing ability of an unknown? A broken rule there could be a product of ignorance and clumsiness, not intentional dissonance in support of a complex inner metricality.

      All of this has led me to rethink yet again how I approach prose.

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